UTHealth has created a clinic that will provide a myriad of expert physicians for patients still dealing with COVID-19 symptoms. Photo via Getty Images

Houston's first clinic for treatment of patients still coping with symptoms of COVID-19 has opened at UT Physicians, the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

The clinic, part of the new UTHealth COVID-19 Center of Excellence, is staffed by specialists in cardiology, general medicine, neurology, infectious disease, pulmonology, psychiatry, and otorhinolaryngology (ear, nose, and throat). Telehealth and in-person visits are available.

"The UTHealth COVID-19 Center of Excellence brings together our university's experts in adult and pediatric specialty care, public health, biomedical research, and big data analytics — all working to provide the best outcomes for our patients, the best public health and prevention practices for our community, and the best therapies for the virus' short- and long-term impacts," Dr. Giuseppe Colasurdo, president of UTHealth, says in an October 15 release.

Among other things, the COVID-19 Center of Excellence will work on developing reliable testing for the coronavirus, authenticating effective therapies, applying analytics and artificial intelligence to care and research, and collecting virus samples for a "biobank" to study how genetics affects the virus' severity.

Since the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, scientists and physicians at McGovern Medical School have led clinical trials and treatment protocols, including one of the world's first double-lung transplants for a coronavirus patient. UTHealth is participating in some of the largest national clinical trials to help COVID-19 patients heal, such as studies to prevent progression of the disease and studies seeking proven treatments for critically ill patients.

In one of the country's first randomized clinical trials of its kind, an $8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health is financing a UTHealth study of whether infusions of convalescent plasma can prevent the progression of COVID-19. Another research team is evaluating whether an oral HIF (hypoxia-inducible factor) inhibitor can protect the lungs of COVID-19 patients. The inhibitor is designed to trigger the body's protective response to low oxygen levels.

At the same time, researchers at UTHealth's Cizik School of Nursing are studying the socioeconomic and mental health effects of the virus on Hispanics, while members of the MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences are exploring how the time of day a medication is taken might help a COVID-19 patient. In addition, experts at UTHealth's School of Biomedical Informatics are using big data to fight COVID-19.

"Within our six schools, we have the broad expertise that has positioned us as one of the few universities to help our community, Texas and the country through the pandemic and beyond," says Michael Blackburn, executive vice president and chief academic officer of UTHealth. "That starts with amazing clinical care, COVID-19 trials, real-time translational research, and expert knowledge from our public health leaders."

The School of Public Health is leading establishment of a study to be conducted with partners throughout Southeast Texas to assess the virus' long-term consequences, determine factors that contribute to severe outcomes, and enable UTHealth experts to develop and use treatments more effectively. In addition, a community information exchange will be built to connect vulnerable populations with healthcare and social service providers.

"In these unprecedented times, the six schools at UTHealth are rapidly evolving the science and medical care for patients with COVID-19 and our community," says Dr. Bela Patel, vice dean of healthcare quality at McGovern Medical School. "Prevention, new therapeutics, and post-COVID-19 care for our patients with prolonged COVID-19 disease is the mission for the UTHealth Center of Excellence for COVID-19."

Five cancer research teams have been selected to receive funds from a new initiative from the University of Texas. Photo via news.utexas.edu

UT system funds Houston researchers in new collaboration to cure cancer

collaborate for a cure

In a renewed effort to move the needle on finding a cure for cancer, the University of Texas system has launched a new collaboration in oncological data and computational science across three programs.

Houston-based University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center has teamed up with two UT Austin schools — the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences and the Texas Advanced Computing Center. The collaboration was announced this summer to tap into mathematical modeling and advanced computing along with oncology expertise to inspire new methods of cancer treatment.

"Integrating and learning from the massive amount of largely unstructured data in cancer care and research is a formidable challenge," says David Jaffray, Ph.D., chief technology and digital officer at MD Anderson, in a news release. "We need to bring together teams that can place quantitative data in context and inform state-of-the-art computational models of the disease and accelerate progress in our mission to end cancer."

Now, the first five projects to be funded under this new initiative have been announced.

  • Angela Jarrett of the Oden Institute and Maia Rauch of MD Anderson will develop a patient-specific mathematical model for forecasting treatment response and designing optimal therapy strategies for patients with triple-negative breast cancer.
  • Caroline Chung of MD Anderson and David Hormuth of the Oden Institute are using computational models of the underlying biology to fundamentally change how radiotherapy and chemotherapy are personalized to improve survival rates for brain cancer patients.
  • Ken-Pin Hwang of MD Anderson and Jon Tamir of UT Austin's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Oden Institute will use mathematical modeling and massively parallel distributed computing to make prostate MR imaging faster and more accurate to reduce the incidence of unnecessary or inaccurate biopsies.
  • Xiaodong Zhang of MD Anderson and Hang Liu of TACC will advance both the planning and delivery of proton therapy via a platform that combines mathematical algorithms and high-performance computing to further personalize these already highly tailored treatments.
  • Tinsley Oden and Prashant Jha of the Oden Institute and David Fuentes of MD Anderson will integrate a new mechanistic model of tumor growth with an advanced form of MRI to reveal underlying metabolic alterations in tumors and lead to new treatments for patients.

"These five research teams, made up of a cross section of expertise from all three stakeholders, represent the beginning of something truly special," says Jaffray in a release. "Our experts are advancing cancer research and care, and we are committed to working with our colleagues at the Oden Institute and TACC to bring together their computational expertise with our data and insights."

Later this month, the five teams will log on to a virtual retreat along with academic and government thought leaders to further collaborate and intertwine their research and expertise.

"Texas is globally recognized for its excellence in computing and in cancer research. This collaboration forges a new path to international leadership through the combination of its strengths in both," says Karen Willcox, director of the Oden Institute. "We are thrilled that leaders in government, industry and academia see the potential of this unique Texan partnership. We're looking forward to a virtual retreat on October 29 to continue to build upon this realization."

UTHealth School of Public Health launched its Own Every Piece campaign to promote women's health access and education. Photo courtesy of Own Every Piece

This Houston organization is rethinking access to and education on women's health

women's health

If you browse through the required school curriculum in Texas, you might be surprised to find that sex ed doesn't quite make the cut. Sex education is optional in the Lone Star State and state law requires schools to stress abstinence when choosing to teach the subject, which can make understanding birth control even more confusing for both teens and adult women.

UTHealth School of Public Health launched its Own Every Piece campaign as a way to empower women with information on birth control and ensure access to contraceptive care regardless of age, race, relationship status or socioeconomic status. One click to the Own Every Piece website and you'll be greeted by the smiles of diverse women, along with videos of their birth control journey and educational information on various birth control options.

"You feel like the campaign is talking to you as a friend, not talking down to you as an authority or in any type of shaming way," says Kimberly A. Baker, assistant professor at UTHealth School of Public Health. One of her favorite areas of the website is the "Find a Clinic" page, connecting teens and adult women to nearby clinics, because "one of the biggest complaints from women is that they didn't know where to go," says Baker.

The website and social media platforms preach of body-positivity, empowerment, and knowledge. Prompts from a "true or false"-style quiz debunk myths from birth control weight gain to proper condom use on the home page. In the name of inclusivity, women can even upload their own birth control story to share with Own Every Piece's audience.

Baker and her team got their start in school districts developing programs for middle and high schoolers while also training teachers on how to discuss birth control openly. After working in over 20 school districts with the goal of preventing teen pregnancy through education, Baker identified a new problem: the significant lack of access to health care within the Houston community.

"We wanted to figure out what the major gaps were," Baker says. "What we found, of course, was how expensive birth control was — especially with some of the most effective methods."

Kimberly A. Baker is assistant professor at UTHealth School of Public Health. Photo courtesy of Own Every Piece

Let's crunch some numbers. When interpreting the price of contraceptives, the type of birth control and access to health care can impact how much women pay out-of-pocket. According to Baker, the standard pill can cost anywhere from $10 to $30 a month while implanting long-acting reversible contraceptives like the IUD can cost upwards of $600 to $700. These calculations don't factor in the cost of a doctor's appointment, the removal of a device like the IUD, or even the average $4,500 it costs to give birth if you choose to have a child in the U.S.

After noticing gaps in who could pay for service, Baker and her team realized that some community centers didn't have the funds to have long-acting contraceptive on hand.

"We knew if we partnered with health clinics and health centers to help train them to better serve folks that they weren't serving well, and to give them more funds to buy methods that women couldn't probably afford...we would be filling that gap," she says.

Creating comfort and trust among women looking for contraceptives was another key intention in the campaign's launch.

"When [women] enter a community health clinic, they should feel confident to ask questions and to know that they're receiving all the accurate information they should be getting so they can make the best decision for them," says Baker.

Baker likes to think of the Own Every Piece project as a "more celebratory campaign around birth control that we hadn't seen before," she says. "There are so many stereotypes around sexuality and reproduction that are very shame-based," says Baker, particularly for "Latinx and Black women."

She acknowledges how epithetical birth control messaging that suggests women shouldn't "have more kids" or implies "pregnancy is a bad thing" frames reproductive health in a negative way. "We wanted a campaign that let women know that they own their body. They make decisions about their body, and birth control is a piece of that," she says.

The purpose of providing access took on a new meaning when the coronavirus hit. Since Own Every Piece began as a digital campaign targeted to Houston women ages 18 to 30, the initiative had a head start in the race to move online.

"We saw an opportunity to figure out how we can tell our community health centers to get into the telecontraception space because we've already established trust virtually through our campaign," explains Baker.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas held the title of the state with the most uninsured residents in the U.S. In a state with 2.9 million unemployment claims since March, access to affordable birth control has never been more essential for women.

"From women who lost their insurance due to losing their job because of COVID-19, this has been a godsend," says Baker.

Telemedicine has also added convenience for women who didn't have the time to check out a clinic in-person before the pandemic.

While COVID-19's strains on American health care continue to dominate headlines, birth control has also managed to make national news. On July 8, the Supreme Court ruled that employers can opt-out of birth control coverage—a decision that could result in an estimated 126,000 women losing contraceptive coverage from their employers, according to the New York Times.

The 7-to-2 Supreme Court decision is the latest in a seven-year-long litigation over religious objections to birth control. Outside of pregnancy prevention, birth control helps women cope with premenstrual dysmorphic disorder, polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, acne, and a number of other issues.

"We have to work harder to have inclusive messaging around [birth control usage], because birth control isn't just about pregnancy prevention," explains Baker. "People use birth control for a number of needs. When you message it just around pregnancy prevention, people start to feel like something is wrong with being pregnant, and that's not what we set out to do."

Houston-based Mainline is providing the tournament software for an unprecedented esports showdown between the Big 12 schools. Jamie McInall/Pexels

Houston esports company to provide software for a first-of-its-kind collegiate tournament

game on

While college football's fate this fall is up in the air thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the Big 12 Conference is definitely going to face off virtually thanks to esports software developed in Houston.

According to an announcement from the Big 12 Conference and Learfield IMG College, its multimedia rights partner, the tournament has opened for registration for all 10 member schools — Baylor University, Texas Christian University, University of Texas, Texas Tech University, Iowa State University, University of Kansas, Kansas State University, University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University, and West Virginia University.

"This is a great opportunity to engage in an emerging space on a Conference-wide level," says Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby in a news release. "This opportunity is a unique way to provide original content from within a competitive environment during these challenging times. We appreciate the collaborative efforts that have made this first-of-its-kind Big 12 Championship tournament possible."

Houston-based Mainline, an esports software startup, has been selected to provide the tournament software for this unprecedented event, which is set to take place July 13 to 16. Each of the 10 schools will host its own single-elimination qualifying tournament featuring Madden NFL 20. Students have until July 10 to register to compete. Big 12 Now on ESPN+ will air both the schools' finals and the Big 12 Conference Championship tournament. The host of Big 12 This Week, Bill Pollock, will call the tournament.

Not only will Mainline's tournament software enable the competition, but it will allow Learfield IMG College to sell sponsors on esports visibility. Just like the football season, the esports tournaments will promote school branding and an opportunity to connect with student participants.

"It's more important now than ever to provide college students the ability to stay connected and engaged, and our technology can help aggregate the college esports community to help make that happen," says Chris Buckner, Mainline's CEO and founder, in the release. "This will multiply the opportunity, power and fun of esports to college students attending all Big 12 universities and keeps students competing while still practicing social distancing."

Earlier this month, Buckner joined InnovationMap's Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the opportunities — as well as the challenges — the pandemic posed for his company.

"Everyone is looking for how to get sports, or esports, in front of people because everyone is just missing [sports] so much," Buckner says on the episode. "Our June will pretty much be the best month of our company, and a lot of that is driven by the fact that everyone is looking for a digital solution rather than an in-person solution."

The most at-risk areas are in poorer industrial parts of Houston. Getty Images

Texas researchers map out parts of Houston most vulnerable to COVID-19

zooming in

A group of researchers from the University of Texas and the University of Houston have created a mapping tool for identifying which parts of the greater Houston area are at the greatest risk from COVID-19.

"The map offers a comparative look at vulnerabilities across Harris County, and could help policy makers determine how to allocate coronavirus tests and health and safety resources," says Amin Kiaghadi, a research associate at UT's Oden Institute for Computational Engineering & Sciences and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Houston, in a news release.

The study, which is posted on MedRxiv, looked into access to health care, pollutant exposure, and medical insurance coverage. Kiaghadi and two UH professors, Hanadi Rifai and Winston Liaw, concluded that the areas most at risk were in the east and northeastern parts of town — especially industrial areas and high-traffic waterways.

The research showed that the highest risk areas were identified as poorer communities, like the area near the Houston Ship Channel. Consequently, populations with lower risk are in the far west areas of Harris County, which tend to be considered nicer areas. According to the release, around 17 percent of the county's population falls into a risk category.

"I'm really interested to see how decision makers look at these maps," Kiaghadi continues. "They can say 'this specific area is vulnerable to many different things—people living there have lower income, they have or they don't have access to the medical care— and that can change the way that they distribute the resources."

Kiaghadi usually focuses on floodwaters spread contamination, and he postulates that his work in this field had an application within the pandemic.

"We believe that if you're exposed to some chemicals for a long time or you were living in an area with bad air quality, that can affect your immune system long term and then make you more vulnerable to a disease like COVID-19," Kiaghadi says. "So we decided to take a new approach here and show that these factors should be considered."

Based on census data, the map is divided up into 786 polygons and looks into 46 different variables in five categories:

  1. People with limited access to hospitals and medical care.
  2. People with underlying medical conditions.
  3. People with exposures to environmental pollutants.
  4. People in areas vulnerable to natural disasters and flooding.
  5. People with specific lifestyle factors, like obesity, drinking and smoking.

According to the release, the researchers formulated the map within just a couple weeks.

"We already had a lot of knowledge and experience working with this sociodemographic data, and population vulnerability to the flaws in the environment and exposure," Kiaghadi says. "So we felt like, this is totally related to our research, so why not explore what it means?"

The map is broken down by 786 census tracts. Graphic via utexas.edu

COVID-19 antibody research coming out of the University of Texas stars an unlikely participant: A llama named Winter. University of Texas at Austin/Facebook

A COVID-19 research breakthrough out of a Texas university comes from unlikely source

have you heard the one about the llama?

In the race to find a treatment for the novel coronavirus, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have announced a potential breakthrough — thanks to a llama.

Scientists from Texas' flagship university who have been collaborating with the National Institutes of Health and Ghent University in Belgium identified an antibody treatment that could potentially neutralize the virus that causes COVID-19.

The researchers detail their work in the May 5 edition of Cell, a scientific journal.

"This is one of the first antibodies known to neutralize SARS-CoV-2," said Jason McLellan, associate professor of molecular biosciences at UT Austin and co-senior author of the paper, in a release. (FYI, SARS-CoV-2 is referring to the virus that causes COVID-19.)

Using a Belgian llama named Winter, scientists were able to identify two antibodies the animal produces when it comes into contact with a foreign body (such as the coronavirus). The first is similar to a human antibody and the second is much smaller, about one-quarter of the size of the other.

This is Winter. Photo courtesy of University of Texas at Austin

Researchers were able to link two copies of this special llama antibody to create a new antibody. This new antibody binds tightly to a key protein on the coronavirus germ that causes COVID-19 and could possible be nebulized and put into an inhaler.

"That makes them potentially really interesting as a drug for a respiratory pathogen because you're delivering it right to the site of infection," said Daniel Wrapp, a UT graduate student in McLellan's lab and co-first author of the paper.

Unlike vaccines, which can take up to two months to take effect, antibody treatment can be used in more vulnerable populations as a way to fight off the virus.

"Vaccines have to be given a month or two before infection to provide protection," McLellan said. "With antibody therapies, you're directly giving somebody the protective antibodies and so, immediately after treatment, they should be protected. The antibodies could also be used to treat somebody who is already sick to lessen the severity of the disease."

From here, research turns to preclinical studies, using hamsters and primates for testing. If successful, they will move onto humans.

If you're wondering just how a group of researchers living in different parts of the globe were able to make this discovery seemingly overnight, that's because they've actually been working on it since 2016, when Winter was just 9 months old.

The experiment began as a way to develop vaccinations for two earlier versions of the coronavirus: SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV. Their years of research allowed the scientists to pivot in recent months to isolating the protein in COVID-19.

As for Winter, she's now 4 years old and still lives with about 130 llamas on a farm in Belgium, likely unaware of her contribution to potentially altering the course of COVID-19 forever.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Photos: Here's a sneak peek at The Ion Houston's construction progress

eye on the ion

The Ion Houston is expected to open its doors this year, and the building's exterior is close to completion. Now, the construction team is focusing on interiors and then tenant build outs.

The 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub owned and managed by Rice Management Co. is slated to be a convening building for startups, corporations, academic partners, investors, and more. The building is organized as follows:

  • The underground Lower Level will act as academic flex space with a few classrooms and open-concept desks for The Ion's accelerators, including: The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, DivInc, the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator, and the Aerospace Innovation Hub and Accelerator. There will also be an event space and The Ion's own programming.
  • On the first, street-level floor, The Ion's restaurant tenants will reside with access from both the greenspace as well as into the building. The Ion's first three restaurant tenants include: Late August, Common Bond, and STUFF'd Wings.
  • Additionally, the first floor will be home to a venture studio and the prototyping lab. There is additional space available for other tenants.
  • On the second floor, there will be 58,000 square feet of coworking space managed by Common Desk. Note: For floors 2 and up of the Ion, tenants will have access cards that allow them entrance. The first and lower floors will not require access cards.
  • The third floor of the building will house eight to 10 tenants each with 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space. Chevron was announced as the first tenant and will reside on this floor.
  • On the fourth and fifth floors, The Ion will house one to two larger tenants on each level. These levels of the building were added on to the existing structure. The fourth floor features two balconies that tenants will have access to. Microsoft is signed on to have its space on half of the fifth floor.
The Ion is still planning on an open date in late spring or summer. For leasing information, click here. Scroll through the slideshow of construction images and renderings to see the progress of the building.

Exterior nears completion

Photo by Natalie Harms

The building's exterior is almost complete and kept much of the original building's facade. The new materials brought in match the existing color scheme.

Texas winery taps Houston tech company for innovative AR experience

cheers

The Lone Star State is home to a vibrant and innovative wine scene, but, just like most hospitality businesses, winemakers missed the opportunity to engage with their patrons amid the pandemic. With a new idea of how to engage its customers, Messina Hof, an award-winning Texas winery, rolled out a new tech-optimized, at-home experience.

The winery partnered with VISION, a Houston-based production group, to create an augmented reality app. Combining the efforts of Messina Hof's in-house label design team and the animation capabilities of VISION, the app took four months to design.

"It was a labor of love for both parties to be able to experiment with this; it was uncharted territory," says Karen Bonarrigo, owner and chief administrative officer of Messina Hof.

The three wines released — Emblaze (Sweet Red), Vitality (Dry White), and Abounding (Dry Red) — each tells a story through the AR experience.

"We wanted to try not only and push the technology as far as we can push it, but also try to really incorporate some heavy storytelling," says Dan Pratt, VISION Creative Director.

The idea to incorporate technology felt like a natural one to Bonariggo.

"The earth, water, and sunshine all go into developing what the profile is for each wine," explains Bonarrigo.

Each of the three wines have scannable labels that bring up a VR experience for app users. Photo courtesy of Messina Hof

VISION, who worked alongside Messina Hof to develop the project, blended the winery's rich family ties with the Old World history of winemaking.

When customers download the app and hold their camera over the label, a trailing vine emerges onto the screen and wraps around the bottle. As vines grow around each bottle, the three each visually signify a different natural element of winemaking — earth, water and the sun. As a rustic sign emerges, it prompts users to then click for recipe pairing recommendations.

Rather than a single-use experience, Messina Hof and VISION wanted to create an app that users could both engage with and learn from. The AR app allows users to view recipes and browse wines in one place.

"We knew we wanted the app to be functional for people to be able to interact with both when they're doing the AR experience, but then also to be able to continue to come back to it later," shares Bonarrigo. While AR wine labels have emerged in some California vineyards, she says, "it's definitely uncharted territory for the Texas industry."

Overseeing the food and wine pairing at Messina Hof is one of Bonarrigo's passions, so it was a natural choice to include recipes in the app. Messina Hof offers a concept called Vineyard Cuisine, coined from the Bonarrigo family cookbook, and incorporates wine in every meal at the vineyard.

"The idea of tying [the wine] to a recipe gave us the opportunity to be able to share new ways [our customers] could use wines in their everyday cooking," she explains.

She hopes the app's recipe feature will help families connect together.

"So often we get used to sitting down at the table, eating really quickly, and then moving on to the next thing, but there's so much connection that can happen with each other when we can slow down a little bit and have a conversation," she continues.

To Pratt, AR was the perfect way to emphasize and expand on the shared experience of wine.

"We wanted this to be an extension of that experience for people. You know, based on the love of wine and laughter with friends," he says.

For those who can't currently gather in a room together, Bonarrigo has hopes that Messina Hof can bring people together from afar.

"I think now more than ever the ability for our regular customers, even within Texas, to then share those wines with family members or friends that are outside the state seems more intuitive," she explains.

"We are so used to being creatures of habit in sharing our wine face-to-face with people that when we had the unexpected opportunity to not do that, we realized that we still have ways to be able to connect with customers through technology," says Bonarrigo.

She finds the "ease of access of being able to connect with them through the online web store" has kept Messina Hof in touch with customers throughout the pandemic, as well as digital happy hours and tasting events.

Messina Hof Harvest Green Winery & Kitchen, the newest location, opened in February, becoming the Greater Houston-area's largest winery. The space features an expansive tasting room and 83-foot wine bar, full-service restaurant, covered patio, two private tasting rooms, a wine production, barrel room, and wine warehouse.

"We knew that when we launched that location that we wanted to be able to have a series of wines at that location that was special, but also out of the box," says Bonarrigo.

Bonarrigo and her husband Paul have ushered in the expansion of Messina Hof over the last nine years. The family business began in 1977 when Paul's parents, Paul Vincent and Merrill, started an experimental vineyard. Messina Hof has locations in Bryan, Grapevine, Fredericksburg, and Richmond.

"This is our largest winery expansion endeavor that we've done," she says. "We wanted the wines to be extra special."

Similar to Messina Hof, companies across industries are seeking to explore interactive technologies to reach their customer base. "A number of our clients, and also new clients that we may not have been able to reach before, have certainly reached out to us to figure out new ways to reach an audience," shares Pratt.

Winemaking may be an Old World skill, but Messina Hof is excited to bring Texas wine into the future.

"So much of winemaking is science, and so much of it is art. There's always this push and pull as to which is more of a majority in the end product," explains Bonarrigo, who notes that Messina Hof has been using technology to innovate and optimize the growing process. The new AR app is a push toward bringing the experience her family loves into the homes of customers.

"This definitely gives a new talking point to wine," she says.